Head Coach: Ron Rivera
2014 record: 7-8-1 overall, 4-2 NFC South
2014 Postseason results: Beat Arizona Cardinals 27-16 in the NFC Wild Card, Lost to Seattle Seahawks 31-17 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs
Odds to win Super Bowl 50: 43/1
Odds to win NFC Championship: 18/1
Odds to win NFC South Division: +210
Regular season wins: under 8 1/2 -150 / over 8 1/2 +130
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Before last season, no team had ever repeated as champion of the NFC South Division in the 13 year history of the division. The Carolina Panthers bucked that trend by winning the division for the second straight year. Last year, Carolina became only the second division winner to have a losing record. The Panthers were 7-8-1 and beat the Atlanta Falcons on the road 34-3 in the last game of the regular season in a winner take all game for the division title.
Still, Carolina was favored at home in the wild card game against the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals won 11 games in the regular season, but entered the playoffs an injury depleted shell of their former selves. The Panthers would win 27-16. The next week, Carolina’s season ended in the divisional playoffs with a 31-17 loss at the Seattle Seahawks.
Coach Ron Rivera is back, and the Panthers look to be more consistent. Last year, Carolina went 1-6-1 in October and November. In fact, after a 37-37 tie at the Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina lost six straight games including ugly blowout losses to Green Bay, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Minnesota. Carolina would win four straight games in December to make the playoffs. Until the playoffs, Carolina had one win over a team with a winning record, an early season win over the Detroit Lions.
Last year, Carolina averaged 347 total yards per game on offense, including 219 passing and 127 rushing yards. The Panthers were #7 in rushing last year. Carolina averaged 21.2 points per game last year. Mike Shula returns as the offensive coordinator.
Quarterback Cam Newton is the obvious face of the franchise. He threw for 3,127 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and rushed for 539 yards on 103 carries with 5 touchdowns. Newton missed both games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, including the season opener and late in the season after he was injured in a rollover car accident on the way to practice. Remarkably, Newton only missed one game after the accident. Derek Anderson returns as the back-up. He threw for 701 yards and 5 touchdowns with no interceptions in the two wins over the Buccaneers.
Leading rusher Jonathan Stewart is back after rushing for 809 yards on 175 carries with 3 touchdowns, and he also had 25 carries for 181 yards and a touchdown. DeAngelo Williams is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Williams is the leading rusher in Carolina franchise history, but battled injuries in 2014. He had 62 carries for 219 yards, along with 5 catches. He played in only six games in the regular season but did return for the playoffs. Fozzy Whitaker will get the back-up carries after rushing for 145 yards on 32 carries with a touchdown, and made 5 catches for 60 yards with a touchdown. Fifth round pick Cameron Artis-Payne from Auburn could also get some carries. Fullback Mike Tolbert had 37 carries for 78 yards, along with 12 catches for 93 yards.
The receiving corps took a serious hit when second year receiver Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL during the pre-season. He had 73 catches for 1,008 yards with 9 touchdowns in a brilliant rookie season. Tight end Greg Olson is back after making 84 catches for 1,008 yards with six touchdowns. The Panthers drafted Devin Funchess as a receiver out of Michigan in the second round. He was supposed to back-up Benjamin but will likely start in his place. Jerricho Cotchery and free agent Ted Ginn, Jr. from the Cardinals will split time at the other receiver. Cotchery had 48 catches for 580 yards and a touchdown. Ginn could be the deep threat the offense was missing last year. Corey Brown had 21 catches for 296 yards and 2 touchdowns. Stephen Hill, free agent signee Jarrett Boykin from the Packers and back-up tight end Ed Dickson will also get some targets.
The Panthers signed left tackle Michael Oher from the Titans, after left tackle Byron Bell went to Tennessee as a free agent. Jonathan Martin had also signed with the Panthers but retired from football. Both Oher and Martin are much more famous for off the field stuff than their average at best talent. Center Ryan Kalil is the leader of the offensive line. The Panthers drafted tackle Daryl Williams in the fourth round out of Oklahoma.
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Carolina allowed 340 yards on defense last year per game, including 228 passing and 112 rushing yards per game. The Panthers were #10 in total offense and #11 in pass defense. Still, the Panthers were #21 in points allowed at 23.4 per game. Sean McDermott returns for his fifth year as defensive coordinator.
The Panthers lost defensive end Greg Hardy to the Dallas Cowboys. Hardy missed all but one game last year after a suspension for domestic violence. Wes Horton and Kony Ealy will likely replace Hardy at one end. Frank Alexander is out for the season with a torn Achilles’. The duo combined for 7 sacks last year. Charles Johnson and Mario Addison combined for 15 sacks at the other end. Tackle Star Lotulelei regressed in 2014 after a great rookie season in 2013. Kawann Short will start at the other tackle.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a superstar. He had 153 tackles last year plus 3 sacks and an interception. Thomas Davis returns on the strong side after making 100 tackles last year. The Panthers drafted linebacker Shaq Thompson in the first round out of Washington. He could start right away on the weak side or platoon with A.J. Klein. Carolina also drafted David Mayo in the fifth round out of Texas State.
The secondary struggled at times last year. Carolina added free agents cornerback Charles Tillman from Chicago and safety Kurt Coleman from Kansas City. Tillman is coming off a torn triceps last year, but will likely start at corner along with Josh Norman. Norman had 2 interceptions and 48 tackles last year. Bene Benwikere will play the nickel cornerback on passing downs. Safety Roman Harper had 62 tackles and 4 interceptions, including a pick six. Tre Boston will start at the other safety. He had only one interception but he did return it 84 yards for a touchdown.
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Kicker Graham Gano made 29 of 35 field goals last year. Punter Brad Nortman is normally solid but he had two punts blocked against Minnesota, and both were returned for touchdowns. Ginn will return punts as he did in 2013 when he was with the Panthers. Jordan Todman will return kicks. Brown and Whittaker are also in the mix for the return jobs.
The Panthers open the season at the Jaguars, before home games against the Texans and Saints. Carolina travels to to Tampa Bay before going on the bye in week five. The rest of October includes a trip to Seattle for a playoff rematch, and a home game against Philadelphia. In November, Carolina hosts Indianapolis on a Monday night, Green Bay, and Washington. The Panthers have road games at the Titans and Cowboys on Thanksgiving. December brings road games at New Orleans, the New York Giants, and Atlanta, plus a home game against the Falcons. Carolina closes the season at home against the Buccaneers.
The Panthers need to take advantage of a soft schedule to start the season. After the bye, Carolina has games against some of the best teams in football. December is easier though. I think this team can win 9 games and will again contend for a division title in the NFC South which is widely considered the worst division in the NFL.
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